Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

By Alfred I. Tauber | Go to book overview
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The Eternal Now

A wise man will know what game to play to-day, and play it. We must not be governed by rigid rules, as by an almanac, but let the season rule us. The moods and thoughts of man are revolving just as steadily and incessantly as nature's. Nothing must be postponed. Take time by the forelock. Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.

Thoreau, April 23, 1859,
Journal, [1906] 1962, 12:159

1848 was a pivotal year. In Europe, conservative forces quashed democratic revolts in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Rome, and Warsaw. Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto. American “manifest destiny” became ever more manifest as Mexico ceded its claims to Texas and California. Boston was inundated with hungry Irish—over thirty-five thousand new arrivals as compared to roughly five thousand per year a decade earlier. Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery, joining the Underground Railroad. And Henry David Thoreau, aged thirty, was again living with the Emersons, house-sitting, while his erstwhile mentor lectured in Europe.

Having come out of the woods in September of the preceding fall, Thoreau, in retrospect, said that he had left Walden Pond simply because he had “other lives to live.” We gain a glimpse into what those other lives might have entailed through his remarkable correspondence with Harrison Gray Otis Blake, begun six months later, in mid-March. Blake, a minister, teacher, and liberal intellectual living in Worcester, Massachusetts, had written him in response to the powerful impression ignited by Thoreau's essay on Perseus (published eight years earlier):

If I understand rightly the significance of your life, this is it: You would sunder yourself from society, from the spell of institutions, customs, conventionalities, that you may lead a fresh, simple life with God. Instead of breathing a new life into the old forms, you would have a new life without and within…. Speak to me in this hour as you are prompted….I honor you because you abstain from action, and open your soul that you may be somewhat. Amid a world of noisy, shallow actors it is noble to stand aside and say, “I will simply be.(Thoreau, Correspondence, 1958, p. 213)

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